Dragon Warrior IV

   When Enix released Dragon Warrior IV in the early 1990s, it was at a time when little to no flash existed in video games, especially in RPGs -- and it shows. The game's layers of depth are hidden underneath the exterior of fat, boxy characters and four-color dungeons. The look is almost prehistoric by today's standards, but where it matters most, Dragon Warrior IV is the zenith of NES RPGs.
 Alena's quest
The fighting tournament that started it all

   Dragon Warrior IV was the first of the series to add to the minimal "Go to the elder, he'll give you a sword, then kill the villain, because the world is in peril" plots that characterized its predecessors -- it marked the beginning of both a new three-game story arc and a fresh direction for the series. Dragon Warrior IV's story is split into five chapters, with different characters starring in each one: an ambitious merchant, Taloon, struggles to start his own store; a royal soldier, Ragnar, investigates the mysterious disappearance of some children; two sisters, Mara and Nara, work to uncover the truth behind their father's murder; and a tomboy princess, Alena, grows up when she journeys beyond her castle walls. The differing stories converge in the final chapter, in which the characters all join under the nameless hero and unravel a mystery involving the secret of evolution and the revival of an ancient evil.

A town at night

   The world our heroes are saving is one of box-shaped midgets wandering through unchanging representations of a succession of castles, towns, caves and towers. Little tan squares count for a desk, while the shopkeeper, as big as the desk and the sign, waits behind to reassure the player that he is the keeper of the Wayfarer's Inn. There is no escaping the 8-bit nature of the graphics, but they are saved a little by a peculiar personality which exudes from everything in the game. Even in this era of RPG graphic splendor, however, the Dragon Warrior world can still absorb you through gameplay and charm alone. Though the monsters -- all designed by Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame -- are just motionless icons, they still feature their own unique personality. Who can ever forget the smiling ghost with a witch's hat on and his tongue sticking out, or the cute (but deadly) Metal Babbles?

Navigating Stancia

   Part of the reason of Dragon Warrior series's popularity is its consistent attention to detail and variety. In one town, you must mount a ship and sail the waterways to different places, a sort of 8-bit Venice. A theater in another town is barren during the day, but becomes packed with cheering crowds at night, one of many changes that occur as time passes. Such changes are not merely cosmetic, however -- more than once, gameplay requires not just the right solution, but the right time of day as well. And while your characters never tire, stronger monsters attack at night, making a stay at a safe and friendly inn a better alternative to nighttime travel. Smaller innovations, like a wagon unused party members can ride in, or Taloon's ability to run his own item store, also abound. The attention to detail also extends down into the many cleverly-hidden secrets that appear throughout the game.

   Dragon Warrior's best quality, however, is simply its length and challenge. It boasts four small quests and a fifth which dwarfs not only the smaller ones, but most other RPGs as well. Most of your gameplay hours will be spent just trying to survive. Dragon Warrior IV never makes a god out of player, and success can only be obtained through careful consideration of how to handle resources. The bosses can be absolute horrors, and many of the dungeons are larger and more labyrinthine than one would think is possible on the NES.

Many items generate magical effects when used

   The battle system is surprisingly generic -- characters are either fighters or magicians -- and features few alterations to the conventions of the era, save the Tactics System. For the first four chapters, you have direct control of all characters, but in the fifth, all the characters save the hero are governed by AI strategies. Fortunately, the AI is usually quite sensible, and follows your orders religiously. Giving proper commands is essential to victory; you can't expect to win by hacking away without a plan.

   This is where Dragon Warrior IV falls short in appeal for some. It takes a great deal of patience to play and still more patience to appreciate. Like every game in the series, it is extremely slow-placed and it entirely revolves around gaining levels. For gamers that don't appreciate the smaller parts of role-playing, this will be downright tedious and alarmingly boring. On the other hand, enough strategy is required that the battles are far from dull and repetitious.

   Dragon Warrior IV heavily rewards an experimenting and adventurous spirit. If you enjoy older-school RPG and can stand the archaic conventions, picking this NES classic back up will bring back a generous helping of good memories.

Retrospective by Knight Michaels, freelance.
Dragon Warrior IV
Developer Chun Soft
Publisher Enix
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform NES
Release Date

Dragon Warrior IV FAQ
25 screenshots
6 character designs / world map
U.S. and Japanese box art